Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Making time for research: NESCBWI Conference 2013

One of the reasons I've been crazy busy lately is a good one: at the beginning of May I had the opportunity to attend the New England SCBWI Conference. I got to meet in person some amazing online friends, enjoy time with Amherst critique group friends, and thoroughly enjoyed not being the only weirdo in the bunch! But all that knowledge gained, hours of workshop after workshop? Exhausting!

So I wanted to use the blog not so much to recap my favorite events, but to remind myself what I got out of them--and also to share that information with you.

First up: Kate Messner's mystery workshop, Whodunnit? and How to Do It, When It Comes to Writing Mysteries for Kids.

I don't actually have a mystery in mind for my writing, but I grew up on Harriet the Spy and my dad's battered old copies of Agatha Christie. The idea of writing a fun kid mystery has always been in the back of my mind. And I adored Kate Messner's The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., and have long-admired her teacher background (we both taught 7th grade language arts!) and her varied and productive career (she's written everything from picture books, to dystopians, to non-fiction writing guides!). However, the one thing I didn't expect of Kate was how organized and research-focused she is.

Like me, it seems she had always wanted to write a mystery, but realized she had no idea how to go about it. So she read a ton of mysteries to figure out how they work.

I know that sounds really obvious, but this was an illuminating moment for me. I think sometimes as writers we're encouraged to dive right in, to write 1000 words a day (more is better), to finish a novel in months, etc. But how can you write a mystery without implicitly understanding all the conventions of the genre, and the challenges? It would be so much easier to have a template to work with.

And this is basically what Kate presented: her template. Writing a mystery involves kid sleuths, with a motive to solve a crime (no professional detectives here!), a perpetrator, with a motive to commit a crime, and suspects, also with motives and fake clues. She's laid all of this information out in her presentation, which is available online here.

She also told a hysterical story about contacting the curator of the Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and asking how one might steal it, that culminated in a family trip to DC, and a curator suddenly less skeptical and buzzing with possibilities (though stealing the flag is a little more complicated in real life). People really do love to talk about what they do for a living!

So not only do I feel like I have another tool in my writer's toolkit, this one for writing a mystery, I also feel like I've gotten a well-needed smack on the head, and a reminder of how important research is to the writing process. I can easily imagine forgetting to pepper my mystery with false clues, and suddenly realizing my child sleuths have no reason to suspect the baker BECAUSE HE HASN'T DONE ANYTHING and I need to throw out large sections of my manuscript and start over. It's worth taking the time to get it right.

Oh, and curious how one WOULD steal the Star Spangled Banner? You can read Kate Messner's Capture the Flag to find out!


  1. Wonderful post, Anne.

    Mysteries are wonderful novels at their best. I remember P.D. James' explanation as to why readers read mysteries: the wish to have every puzzlement have an answer. The wish to make the irrational of the world be rational. = *The wish to put things in order.*

    It would follow that the writer who writes good mysteries must be an organized writer.

    1. I never thought of that, Mirka, but it does make sense! That and someone who loves solving puzzles!

  2. I attended Kate's revision workshop and also got a simple but extremely helpful reminder to think not only about what the story is about but to consider what it's REALLY about (i.e. what's at the heart of it). It was exactly what I needed to hear.

    1. That Kate must be one smart cookie!

      BTW, so sorry we never bumped into each other Saturday!

  3. Mysteries were my favorite thing to read as a middle-grader. Now as an adult, I appreciate the skill it takes to plot and write one!

    trying to picture the reaction of the curator at the Smithsonian when she called asking how hard it would be to steal the flag! Too funny!

  4. Sounds like a great workshop. Glad you gleaned so much from it.

    1. It was good! Totally practical and relevant, which I love in a workshop!


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